Bored of looking at textbooks? Don’t know how to break out into the real world and talk to some actual humans? Well, this is my real-world guide to taking the first steps.
Talking To Yourself
Celebrity language learners like Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months will tell you what you need to do from the outset is to start talking to other people. That’s cool, but if you’re anything like me, that seems a bit daunting. So why not start by talking to yourself. Get hold of a CD or set of tapes or whatever technology you prefer. I really like the Michel Thomas Method. Its Portuguese course starts from zero and bootstraps you into forming pretty complicated sentences in half a dozen tenses within a few hours. It’s a very clever system and the teacher is brilliant. There’s a basic version called Start Portuguese and a more complete one called the Total Portuguese Foundation Course . I listened to them while running in the park and panted out my attempts at the various answers. I’ve heard good things about Pimsleur too, but I’ve never used it so I can’t vouch for it.
Check you out! You’ve spoken some actual sentences! Hopefully by now you’re starting to feel a little more confident. Not Colin-Firth-in-Love-Actually confident, but… OK, OK, you’re probably not confident at all because speaking to foreigners in their own language is – for a British person – absoflippinglutely terrifying, but trust me, you’ll be fine. You’ve started well, and the next stage is speaking to someone else in a controlled, predictable, pressure-free setting. That predictability is key, I think, because a lot of people find the main thing that stops them speaking other languages is a lack of confidence. So here’s how we do it…
Find a Language Partner
The next thing to try is speaking to a language partner. This is going to be someone who is trying to learn English so they will be patient with you in exchange for you being patient with them while you both practice.
iTalki is a language-learning website. If you register there you can find people who are trying to learn your language and arrange to speak to them via Skype or Google Hangouts. Aim to get a native speaker, ideally from the target country – so in my case, Portugal, although I had to settle for a Brazilian in my first conversation because there were so many of them and I got tired of running away. Contact someone who looks nice and invite them to be a language partner, then ask them if they would be interested in a Skype session for five or ten minutes so you can both practice. It’s surprisingly tiring to speak an unfamiliar language, so keep it realistic.
Plan the Session
Before you start, try to plan out a few fragments of conversation, or even a whole spiel that will get you through. Jot down some phrases you plan to say: who you are, where you live… that sort of thing, and maybe a few questions too. Also, think about some handy phrases for when you get stuck. For example
- Pode falar mais devagar por favor? Can you speak more slowly please?
- Desculpe, não entendo I’m sorry, I don’t understand
- Pode repetir por favor? Can you repeat that please?
- Um momento… One moment…
Open a couple of browser tabs; most importantly for Google Translate, which you will probably hit pretty hard, and one for any other online resources you might need like Conjuga-me or an online dictionary in case you need them.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have more butterflies in your stomach than Jeremy Fisher after his lunch, but don’t worry, it’ll be fine. Your language partner is probably nervous too. They are a language learner, and you are helping each other so you can bet they will be patient and understanding.
When the session starts, make good use of the statements you have written down. If you go off-piste and get stuck on a word, type it into google translate.
If your partner says something you don’t understand, no worries, use some of your set phrases to ask them to say it again more slowly. If you still don’t understand, ask them to type it into the Skype chat window, then copy and paste it into Google Translate which will translate it into something approaching English. If you don’t know how to reply, type your answer, in English back into Google Translate so you can answer. If it takes a little while, refer to the list above so you can say “one moment please…”
As you can see, there’s some “cheating” involved here, but it doesn’t really matter: you’re speaking, and as you go along, you’ll find it comes a little easier, and you might even find by the end of the session that you’ll be able to say the odd sentence off-the-cuff by arranging some of the words you have used easier in the session. Don’t be afraid to repeat – it’ll help you remember the words, and that can only be a good thing.
I would love to pretend these are all original ideas, but while I put some of it together myself, I have shamelessly nicked a lot of these ideas from celebrity polyglots, notably the aforementioned Benny Lewis, who you can see here demonstrating the method in Polish, just to show how it works in the real world.